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11 April 2022 / Caitlin Devlin

How essential oil use began: the history of aromatherapy

Wondering how it all started? Let’s look back through the centuries.

Aromatherapy products on a blanket including essential oil, leaves, lavender, and stones

Aromatherapy is an ancient art, but it didn’t always look the way it does now.

Long before essential oils were first extracted from natural materials, herbs and spices were being used medicinally in all sorts of ways. Throughout many centuries and countless civilisations, aromatherapy changed and evolved to give us the practice as we know it today.

Here is a breakdown of how aromatherapy came to involve the use of essential oils, and how it has shaped the wellness habits of our ancestors for thousands of years.

The ancient world

The practice of using plants for their medicinal properties may date back as far as 60,000 BCE.

This theory is based on the pollen of eight medicinal herbs, discovered in the grave of a Neanderthal man buried in what is now Iraq. Some historians believe that this is the earliest evidence of aromatherapy.

Clay tablets have also been found buried near modern day Syria, detailing herbal remedies for a range of illnesses.

Whilst it’s hard to determine exactly when aromatherapy began, we do know that it existed in various forms across several different nations by the year 3,000 BCE.

The Ayurvedic system of medicine, formed in India, boasts scriptures dating back to this time that reference various plant-based remedies. Texts have also been discovered from ancient China and Egypt on the topic of healing herbs, spices and plants.

Ancient Rome and Greece

Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, is credited with introducing aromatherapy to Ancient Greek civilisations, suggesting the practice of fumigation with healing plants to ward off illnesses. This technique was so successful that it won him the title of ‘Saviour of Athens’.

Hippocrates also recommended aromatic baths and massages as part of a healthy lifestyle. Not long after, Theophrastus propelled the study of botany forward by recording over 500 plant species, research that would later become important in the evolution of aromatherapy.

When the Roman Empire came into power, they spread their knowledge of aromatic plants throughout Europe.

Avicenna, a Roman medical practitioner, was particularly crucial to this era. Not only did he write the ‘Canon of Medicine’, which referenced many plant-based remedies, but he is also credited with inventing the steam distillation method for extracting essential oils.

    Medieval church with field of lavender in the foreground, and hills and blue sky in the background

    Essential oils have long been commended in history for their medicinal benefits.

    The Dark Ages and the Great Plague

    Much medicinal information was unfortunately forgotten in the Dark Ages, stalling the development of aromatherapy in Europe. However, elsewhere in the world, natural remedies still continued to be used.

    It wasn’t until the Great Plague that herbal remedies began to play an important role in European medicine again, when the streets were fumigated to protect citizens.

    The beginnings of modern aromatherapy

    Aromatherapy as we know it could be said to have begun in late nineteenth century France, when René-Maurice Gattefossé treated a burn with lavender essential oil and wrote Aromathérapie, his book about treating illnesses and afflictions with essential oils.

    This was the first time the term ‘aromatherapy’ had been written down and published.

    In the years following, various practitioners began to open aromatherapy and massage clinics all over Europe, and a range of aromatherapy schools and organisations sprang up.

    Another large step forward in our understanding of essential oils was made in 1975, when Pierre Franchomme proposed that the aromatic compounds in a plant are very important when determining its properties.

    This discovery continues to inform the way that we look at essential oils.

    Today, over 17,000 articles on aromatherapy have appeared in high level scientific publications, and that number still keeps going up.

    Aromatherapy is a hugely important practice to many people all over the globe, and our understanding of essential oils and what they can do for our wellness just keeps on growing.

    Shop our essential oils here.

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